SOMEWHERE, ALMOST certainly in the Middle East or Central Asia, a roomful of men must have been celebrating wildly yesterday as they saw the greatest act of terrorism in history go precisely as they had planned it.
While the rest of the world watched their television sets in horror, they would have been delighted at the success of an operation that demanded precision, expertise and co- ordination of the highest order. And the greater their success, the worse the failure of American intelligence to pick up even a hint of what was happening. According to some sources, there had been warnings of threats to American interests abroad, but they were so unspecific as to have been useless. The CIA and the FBI appear to have been unable to penetrate the world in which the terrorists operated.
Porter Goss, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said: "We are scrambling all the time to assess information about people who could do harm to the United States and its people ... We will have to rethink how we do business and deal with this kind of threat." Before retaliating, it was vital to get accurate information, so that any strike should "not provoke incidents that are unwarranted".
Before yesterday the worst act of terrorism on American soil was home-grown: the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people. Timothy McVeigh has been executed for that crime, but the degree of fanaticism in yesterday's atrocity, which must have required large numbers of perpetrators willing to sacrifice their own lives, tends to turn suspicion abroad. America's unremitting support for Israel in its bloody, year-long conflict with the Palestinians is sure to be seen as one possible cause. Iraqi revenge for the Gulf War is another possibility.
The man certain to be regarded as the prime suspect is Osama bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian-born Islamic radical and multimillionaire accused by the Americans of being a terrorist mastermind. Next in line might be Saddam Hussein of Iraq, believed to be harbouring one of the perpetrators of the last terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre.
Baghdad was accused of extensive links to the last terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, when a 1,200lb bomb was left in a truck in the complex's parking garage. It exploded on 26 February 1993, killing six people and injuring 1,000. Abdul Rahman Yasin, an Iraqi government employee indicted for the bombing, fled the US and is believed to be sheltering in Iraq.
In 1993 Ramzi Yousef, according to the judge who sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole for masterminding the bombing, planned to topple one tower of the World Trade Centre into the other, and to release a cloud of deadly cyanide gas. He failed in that aim – the bomb was not powerful enough, and the gas evaporated in the heat of the explosion. He was caught before he could carry out another plan, to blow up 11 US commercial aircraft in one day.
In the absence of state support from a country such as Iraq, one of the few other people apparently capable of carrying out such an attack is Mr bin Laden, who has taken refuge with the hardline Islamist Taliban regime in Afghanistan. He is accused of instigating the almost simultaneous destruction of two US embassies in east Africa just over three years ago in which more than 200 people died. That attack called for cunning and split-second timing to penetrate security barriers; so did another with which he has been linked by the US, the suicide bombing of the USS Cole which killed 17 American servicemen in the port of Aden in October last year.
Only two weeks ago, Indian police accused Mr bin Laden of plotting to bomb the US embassy in Delhi. And 10 days ago the intelligence services of Britain, Israel and the US were alerted when one of the passengers on a plane which crash-landed at Malaga airport turned out to be a suspected bagman for Mr bin Laden. They lost him after he was released from hospital.
The name of Osama bin Laden also crops up in connection with a failed plot to blow up Los Angeles airport. Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian, was stopped with explosives in his car as he tried to cross into the US from Canada late in 1999. Police found a business card with a London telephone number. That led to another Algerian, Abu Doha, 37, known as "the Doctor", who has been in British custody since he was arrested at Heathrow trying to board a flight to Saudi Arabia this year.
According to American prosecutors seeking his extradition, "the Doctor" supervised a cell of Algerian terrorists who trained at camps set up in Afghanistan by Mr bin Laden.Reuse content